Thursday, 23 December 2010

True Crime

Lowdown: A reporter unable to take care of himself on a crusade to save a death row prisoner.
Review:
I can only say that many times that Clint Eastwood is probably my favorite moviemaker. Given that, and given I am currently reading a book about Eastwood’s films, I did not pass the opportunity to record True Crime on my PVR and even watch this 1999 release at my own convenience, skipping through the ads.
This time around actor/director Eastwood plays a journalist with a special talent for doing the wrong thing. He sleeps with his editor’s wife and everyone knows about it; obviously, he’s cheating on his wife; and he fails on his promises to take care of his young daughter. He does have one positive redeeming talent, and that’s his skill as a journalist: when he’s given the task to follow up on a fellow reporter’s work and write a sentimental piece about a death row inmate about to be lethally injected that night, he immediately starts asking the right questions.
At the same time we get ourselves acquainted with the death row criminal. Immediately we notice he doesn’t feel like a killer; it’s pretty obvious his guards share the notion. We meet his wife and daughter, we fall for them all, and – just like Eastwood’s character – we can smell something wrong. Hence starts the almost real time race to acquire evidence proving the inmate’s innocence before the clock turns midnight, a race of a type we’ve seen in plenty of other films. The difference here is that Eastwood is doing the racing while encumbered by all sorts of rather mundane affairs when compared to what’s at stake – a guy’s life. The race is not only tense: through superb acting by the likes of James Woods as the newspaper’s chief editor, True Crime works as an effective comedy just the same.
True Crime is your typical Eastwood film. It’s simple, unassuming and was probably shot for peanuts but it’s incredibly effective, perhaps as a direct result of its simplicity. The film is so simple it easily passes underneath everyone’s radar, yet when you think about it Eastwood’s ability to come up with such quality deliveries time and time again is incredible. Indeed, True Crime follows the Eastwood template to the letter: the compromised hero comes along to save the day and attain salvation yet remains compromised and real life like throughout. You can easily see some of Eastwood’s more recognized work, like Million Dollar Baby, staring back at you through True Crime: While the latter delivered a liberal pro euthanasia message, the former delivers a liberal anti capital punishment message. Both share the same technique for delivering the message, though.
Personally, I liked the non politically correct attitude displayed by Eastwood. When he interviews the inmate in their first face to face he stops the prisoner from telling him about his Jesus finding. Eastwood doesn't give a damn about Jesus, or so he says as he asks the prisoner whether he committed the crime he's to be killed for or not. Now, let’s be frank – how many times did we have an American movie’s hero, and a household name like Eastwood for that matter, express themselves about Jesus in such a way?
Best scene:
In a hurry to pursue his journalistic quest, but still under obligation to take his daughter to the zoo, Eastwood takes her for a special “quick zoo” tour where he puts her on a trolley and runs through the zoo. Things don’t end well, but as a parent who is always in a conflict between his personal pursuits and satisfying his son’s whims, I can certainly see where Eastwood’s character is coming from.
Interestingly enough, while watching True Crime I regarded Eastwood’s daughter to be the film’s weakest link. As in, how can a man in his sixties (Eastwood was born in 1930) father such a young daughter? Then I read the daughter character is played by Eastwood’s real life daughter. I shut up and sat in the corner.
Overall: A crafty piece of moviemaking that deserves much more acknowledgement than it got. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Hurt Locker

Lowdown: A team of three American bomb squad soldiers struggle to survive the last month of their Iraqi tour.
Review:
Kathryn Bigelow and I go a long way. Back in the days of Point Break and Strange Days a lot of it was because of her short lived marriage to James Cameron, who at the time was my favorite movie maker and is still very much up there. Yet Bigelow is an excellent director in her own rights with a very in your face style, as the opening scene to Strange Days indicates and as The Hurt Locker certainly proves.
The Hurt Locker takes us to contemporary Iraq and we’re immediately introduced to a group of three bomb squad soldiers as they dismantle a bomb in the middle of a busy street. Things go wrong and the team leader (Guy Pearce) doesn’t make much screen time. He is replaced by a hotshot ranger (Jeremy Renner) who is not too careful about quickly building himself a reputation for being addicted to danger and perhaps careless in his ways. With his team only having a month or so to go on their tour of Iraq, his other two team members are not exactly fond of this newly introduced risk to them going back home in one piece. Team camaraderie and identity evolve as The Hurt Locker takes us and the team from one extreme situation to another without much time for them soldiers and us viewers to take a breath in between.
War films are a genre I generally like because they take the human condition to its extremes. There are plenty of good samples for the genre out there and The Hurt Locker joins the top of the rank by being the first to provide a certain look at war. With The Hurt Locker you’re not fighting a war; you’re just out there again and again with a group of soldiers trying to make it through. Being a bomb dismantling unit, they are not about conquering land or fighting enemy soldiers but rather they’re about countering traps and mere survival. Bigelow explores human nature through this unique mix of characters' ongoing fight to survive, with emphasis on the particular bit that seems to attract itself to trouble so much so it’s hooked on it.
It's interesting to note Bigelow does not have big time stars as main cast members. I wonder whether that was due to budget restrictions or whether it was an artistic decision, since the film does sport some famous names doing cameo like roles: the previously mentioned Pearse, David Morse doing a deranged colonel that seems to be a direct descendant of Apocalypse Now's Rubert Duvall, and Ralph Fiennes playing a mercenary commando trying to make millions by hunting down wanted Iraqis (the ones from the USA's famous pack of cards).
Style wise, The Hurt Locker is incredibly intense. Camera work and editing mean there’s hardly a rest and things are always tense. What captured me the most, though, is the realism. Now, we’ve had plenty of realistic war films before: Saving Private Ryan, for example, started a trend of war films showing us high friendly body counts, piles of dead bodies and much gore. The Hurt Locker doesn’t go there; what it shows us instead is the realistic playing field in which modern day war takes place. To borrow from the Call of Duty computer game series, The Hurt Locker is the Modern Warfare version. For the film’s two hours plus, we follow the heroes as they navigate Iraqi streets filled with local population overflowing with different emotions towards them but generally hostile. For the film’s two hours plus, I found myself back in the West Bank doing my non combat work while surrounded by civilian population with a variety of attitudes towards me: most want to just live their lives in peace and quiet, others are openly hostile, while others actually try to express their hostility to a level that keeps you on your toes and grinds you down so much that you are not your usual you anymore. I couldn’t help it: even if my experience was not half a percent as intensive as what takes place on the screen, everything just looked so similar, so life like, so authentic.
Best scene:
Perhaps the best remembered scene would be the suicide bomber one. I, however, liked the closing scenes where our heroes leave Iraq in a van that's being stoned by little kids in the exact same way my van used to get stoned at the West Bank. Then we cut to see Renner's characters back home at a supermarket aisle, not knowing what to do with himself as he's surrounded by shelves of cereal, and I couldn't avoid remembering how odd the ordinary world (often referred to as "civilization") used to seem to me after coming back home from the army state of mind.
Let no one tell you that being an occupying force does not have a negative effect on one's psych.
Technical assessment: The picture and the sound on this Blu-ray both collaborate with Bigelow's approach of putting you in the thick of things. It's done with camera movement but it's also done with high contrast, often grainy picture. The result fits the occasion well even if it does not feature the best picture ever. The intensive, claustrophobic soundtrack compliments the picture well.
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars for this very authentic look at people doing war.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Brothers

Lowdown: The triangle between an ex criminal, a soldier/brother and the soldier’s wife.
Review:
Jim Sheridan’s Brothers is a film I liked from start to finish, quite the contrast from the other film of his I got to review recently, In America. It certainly left me wondering whether Brothers is so good because it’s so heavily based on the Danish original from 2004 or whether it was Sheridan’s touch in moving it to a 2007 American setting that made the difference, but regardless – a good film is a good film.
Set in what seems to be a cold middle of nowhere American town where people can either join the marines or turn into the wrong side of the law, and where raw religion provides the main anchor for people’s identities, we are quickly introduced to the three characters around which the whole film revolves:
  • Jake Gyllenhaal, a criminal just released from jail for attacking a woman.
  • Tobey Maguire, a successful marine captain today and a previously successful quarterback. Maguire is Gyllenhaal’s brother; the film starts with him picking his brother’s up from jail upon Gyllenhaal's release.
  • Natalie Portman, Maguire’s beautiful trophy wife and the mother of his two young daughters.
Just as Gyllenhaal is released back to society Maguire is taken away from it, shipped with his unit over to Afghanistan. There his Blackhawk is shot down, leaving the army to think he’s dead and his family to try and cope with the loss. As Portman tries to deal with the loss, Gyllenhaal finds himself forced to rehabilitate out of the need to help her; something happens between them while we are exposed to the family's dysfunctionalities. Maguire, however, isn’t dead; he’s a Taliban captive, where he goes through horrific experiences in order to get back home. By now you can probably imagine where Brothers would be leading you to.
As dramas go I would say Brothers is top rate. Everything seems to work in its favor: the plot is credible and easy to relate to and the dynamics of things is excellent. There is no bullshit along the lines of a turnkey event dependent on a some stupid lie, as often happens with Hollywood dramas; the extreme circumstances of Afghanistan make sure turnkey events are easily acceptable and do not suspend disbelief. The characters are authentic, and the triangle at the center of things shifts our perception of good and bad nicely and effectively. This is movie making at its best: it looks simple but it takes us on a journey to catharsis.
Credit has to be given to the actors here. It is rare to see so much fine acting: all the center three as well as Sam Shepard playing the brothers' father give away excellent performances. As usual, I really like Gyllenhaal, but I have to say that it is Portman on whose shoulders most of the burden is laid. She deals with it in flying colors.
Best scene: The scene that touched me the most was the one in which Portman gives away her dead husband’s clothes to a guy working at her kitchen that had paint spilled over him. It’s a fine example for when a mundane incident hits on a major turning point, because I don’t think there’s a manual out there stating when the optimal stage for getting rid of a dead person’s possessions is. Especially when that person happened to be someone you truly cared for. Anyone that experienced a loss would identify with Portman there.
Technical assessment: To say this is a mediocre Blu-ray would be an understatement as the picture here offers less detail than a well made DVD (or, for that matter, an not so well made DVD). The sound isn’t spectacular either: other than one or two notable scenes you could easily mistake Brothers’ for a mono soundtrack.
Overall: An excellent drama where the things that matter in the making of a good drama click well. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Zero History by William Gibson

A word of warning: This is not going to be your average book review.
I first heard of author William Gibson and his book Zero History through a glowing recommendation given to the book by Cory Doctorow (here). Given the respect I hold for Doctorow, I decided to follow his advice and get the book for my Kindle.
Having read about a third of the book I did the rare act of abandoning it. I did so for two main reasons:
  1. Despite reading a significant portion of the book I was still unable to figure out where the book was trying to lead me to. Never mind that; I was unable to pick out what's going on in the first place (it looks like something to do with industrial espionage in the world of fashion, but who knows?).
  2. Perhaps the main reason for the above is the way the book narrates itself. I found its style of extra lengthy descriptions very annoying; entire pages could be summarized in two short sentences if you were to cut the redundant descriptions away. Perhaps I have been too spoiled by young adult titles recently, but I always had a preference to "cutting the bullshit"; Zero History offers probably the farthest alternative to that view I have ever encountered in a book.
I respect opinions stating that it is its very style that renders Zero History great but I cannot agree. I also accept that some of the difficulty I had with the book has to do with it being an independent second sequel to books featuring the same heroes; yet the book is not selling as a sequel but rather as a book whose heroes you might know from earlier encounters.
Overall: I am in no position to reliably rate Zero History; I only sought to illuminate its potential readers as to the experience they are about to face. Feel free to illuminate me if you consider me wrong.

Friday, 17 December 2010

The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas

Lowdown: 44 atheists’ essays themes around Christmas.
Review:
The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas is a book selling itself with the promise of being a book the conscious filled atheist can give their [presumably theist] grandmother for Christmas. I don’t know if that statement can apply to all grandmothers; aside of the fact they are past being able to read anything, mine grandmothers couldn't care less about Christmas. However, given the interesting premises and writers collaborating here I took the plunge and spent a whole dollar buying this book for my Kindle. For the record, all proceeds go to secular charities (I believe these are HIV related but don’t take my word for it).
Essentially the guide is a collection of 44 essays written by prominent atheists, mostly British ones. Comedians make a significant portion of those while famous skeptics like Richard Dawkins make another, but there are also some unexpected faces like Simon Le Bon. Personally, I happened to realize some people I've previously met in the world of Twitter happen to be fellow atheists (e.g., Ben Goldacre): it's interesting to note how like meets like through the vast world of Twitter even you're not truly aware of your likeness.
Most of the the book's essays can be related in one way or another to Christmas through their themes, and the book further helps us by dividing them into separate sections like personal stories, events and philosophy (my pick of the lot). The best way to describe the outcome? It feels like reading lots of different bloggers discussing the same thing in their own different ways.
As can be expected, quality varies. Le Bon’s entry, for example, is quite personal but will not deliver much in the way of illumination; AC Grayling’s entry gets my vote for best essay, confirming that here is another person I would very much like to have dinner with. Another essay that touched me tells the story of a young boy growing up in a religious family while pen-palling the famous skeptic James Randi and eventually meeting Randi at Oxford, at the house of Randi’s friend Richard. This guy f-ing spent a weekend at Richard Dawkins’ house discussing the most interesting things with the most interesting people, just like that, without giving me a call! Who do I need to start writing letter to?
Granted, a significant portion of the essays are not particularly interesting, especially to non British readers. Given the format, one cannot expect discussions that would take your understanding of the universe into another dimension. I was also dismayed with the fact I didn’t know who most of the authors were, only to find short resume like accounts of them piled at the book's very end; I would have preferred to have those associated immediately with their respected essays. However, criticism aside, there can be no denying The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas works and works well:
  1. It provides genuine views on Christmas, starting from historical facts and moving through alternating views on how to celebrate it. Most notable is the fact that in contrast to radical Christian myths there is absolutely no atheist out there who has a problem with celebrating Christmas (at this point I'd like to refer you to a post by PZ Myers, who raises the hypothesis that the association between "the war on Christmas" and atheism was first made as a cold war tactic - read about it here).
  2. It provides a good introduction to the atheist state of mind, contemporary atheist trends and overall atheist philosophies. It does it so well the book would serve those who want to know more about atheism but can’t be bothered to take the plunge.
  3. In doing the above, and in its proceeds going to worthy charities, The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas becomes a worthy Christmas gift. I can’t give it to my grandmothers anymore, but I can easily shortlist some friends & family I suspect would greatly benefit from this book. As gifts go, this is much better than the mindless consumerist crap that is the bulk of the Christmas gifts we end up exchanging.
One last note regarding the importance of this book existing in the first place. When I hear calls at my workplace that we should have Christian Christmas celebrations for our work celebrations, as opposed to just Christmas celebrations, I get annoyed. I don’t mind people celebrating Christmas in any way they feel like, but I do mind being dragged into their way. Christianity has hijacked Christmas some 1600 years ago from others whose traditions are still very much there (let the Atheist’s Guide to Christmas tell you about the way the holiday is celebrated in Scandinavia for evidence). My point is that the rest of us, that is – the majority of us – need to stand up to protect our right to celebrate what we feel like, whenever we feel like and however we feel like. The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas stands up for that cause.
Overall: Don’t let the 3 out of 5 stars I’m giving this book deter you; The Atheist's Guide to Christmas is worthy of everyone’s attention.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Inception

Lowdown: A tormented hero’s only salvation is in planting an idea is someone’s head by invading their dreams.
Review:
Judging by the hype, one would be forgiven for thinking Inception was this year’s Avatar: the biggest thing out there in the cinemas that everyone must see and that would leave a hole in your life were you to miss it. I was highly skeptical: hype is often generated through pure consumerism and herd tendencies. Besides, while I liked director Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins I really didn’t think much of his other – over-hyped in my book – efforts, including The Prestige and Dark Knight. With arguments in favor of both sides, I was curious to see which end of the scales would tip for Inception.
The idea behind Inception, as well as its execution, reminds me a lot of The Matrix. In the world of industrial espionage, the latest fashion is stealing ideas from people’s brains by invading their dreams. Apparently, while dreaming there is this whole tangible world inside the dreamer’s head, and other people can dream their way in (using the latest gadgeteria), take part in the dream, and put their hands on the ideas so that when they wake up they have it, too. So far so good: much worse ideas were used to base science fiction films around.
Our hero at Inception is Leonardo DiCaprio, who, we quickly learn, is not only a master dream thief but also a tormented lover. His wife (Marion Cotillard) used to be his collaborator until she died in mysterious circumstances that left him hindered at his day job through her haunting him in his dreams and trying to jeopardize his success at “work”. In real life DiCaprio is wanted for the murder of his wife, which prevents him from going back to his native USA to see his children.
Opportunity knocks, as they say, with an offer DiCaprio can’t refuse: Ken Watanabe offers to ensure allegations against DiCaprio are removed if DiCaprio does the ultimate job for him. Not stealing info from one’s head, but rather planting an idea inside a competitor’s head. Planting an idea, or the act of inception, is so hard it hasn’t been done before (or so tells us the film); yet odds don’t matter for DiCaprio as he plans the impossible, arranges a crew of supporting actors to help him in his plot, and goes ahead with an intricate plan for planting an idea in someone’s head without that someone noticing: doing it via a dream inside a dream inside a dream. When going that deep one should expect complexities; when doing it in the head of a person trained against dreams’ theft one should expect commando guards everywhere. Thus us, viewers, have ourselves two and half hours of sophisticated action.
I have many problems with Inception, starting from the idea in its premises. Actually, not the idea itself; as I said, there have been worse ideas at the core of films. Sure, if you can access someone’s brain, why do you need to do it through a live action dream instead of randomly accessing it the way you would a hard drive, but hey – let’s not get carried away and forget we are dealing with an excuse to run a film around. No, the problem is with the way the premises are justified and explained to us: again and again we are told that ideas are the most viral thing out there, more so than viruses and microbes; that is, again and again the film bullshits us, since viruses and microbes were there long before the first idea ever had and will be there long after intelligence bearing brains required in order to form ideas with are long gone. Then there is the theory behind the power of dreams, which starts with and is based on – you guessed it – “we’re only using a fraction of our brain power” and “by utilizing the subconscious we can get more”. It’s all repeated again and again, the way pseudoscience always assumes that by hammering down the same message it can make it true; and then piles upon piles of assumptions are thrown on top of that to justify what DiCaprio’s gang is doing and to conjure a set of rules “explaining” to us what’s going on. A lot of time and effort in what is already too long a film is spent doing that, only that, at the bottom of it all, there is no escaping the fact it’s all bullshit! By all means, base your film on a fictitious idea; but don’t forcibly coerce us into thinking it’s anything but a fictitious idea.
Once you accept the bullshit framework what is left is an admirable collection of action scenes with some crafty special effects that is overall incredibly predictable. You know the question of whether this whole thing is a dream or not is going to come up, and once you learn that “no one has gone to the level of dream inside a dream inside a dream before” you know the film would take you one level further – it has to in order to keep the flame burning, otherwise the film can’t be as exciting: you never excite people by meeting their expectations; you need to go over the top.
Going over the top is exactly what Inceptions does. The exaggerated way it does it with belittles it: after less than an hour I stopped caring about its explanations for what is taking place and started laughing instead at its continuously over-stretching arguments.
Best scene:
One of DiCaprio’s mates tries to shoot a dream protecting sentry with a rifle. Another comes in with a suggestion: since they’re in a dream, dream big; he kills the guard with a huge grenade launcher.
The point about this scene is that it recognizes one of the biggest issues I have had with The Matrix, which applies to Inception just the same despite this scene. If everything takes place in a dream world, why shouldn’t you dream big? Why can’t you be a shape shifting, all capable flying superman with your own time machine up your ass? Why should you be limited by what seems to be a studio’s budget for special effects?
My point is that for something that’s meant to be imaginative, Inception is not half as imaginative as I can imagine its world to be.
Notable scenes:
The film’s climax, in which all the different layered dreams come together, is a study in crafty direction work and editing in particular (including sound editing and the use of music). The main reason for it being a case study is its length: Nolan manages to pull the climax over a period of many minutes.
Does it work? Does Nolan pull it off? Yes and no. It works because it managed to keep me suspended for a long while, but it didn’t work because it drew too much attention to itself at the same time (especially by overusing slow motion).
Technical assessment: There is something that makes the picture on this generally excellent Blu-ray look artificial to me; perhaps it is the way the look of each dream was tailored to make it unique. But that is only a minor complaint. The sound is impeccable, with Hans Zimmer's music delivered with force and extra low frequency special effects.
Overall: There is more to Inception than your average time wasting action flick. That said, there is also more bullshit to it than ten stupid films crammed together. I would therefore say it’s better than the average 3 star action film but it’s not as good as a proper 3.5 out of 5 stars film.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The Men Who Stare at Goats

Lowdown: A lackluster reporter embeds himself to a supernatural warrior venturing into Iraq’s battlegrounds.
Review:
A lot of the charm sported by The Men Who Stare at Goats comes from past glory. Grant Heslov, the director of this rather eccentric flick, is perhaps best known as the baddie from True Lies; and its hero figure, portrayed by Ewan McGregor, suits the role because once again the actor is playing a Jedi. A real life Jedi this time around.
McGregor plays a small time reporter who, disappointed at his wife leaving him in favor of his one armed editor, decides to go to war: Iraq has just been invaded, and an embedded reporter’s career could make him feel useful for a change. His luck doesn’t bid him well, though, as he’s stuck in Kuwait while nobody thinks much of him as a reporter. Until, that is, McGregor meets a George Clooney playing a supernatural soldier entering Iraq on his own in some sort of a secret mission. They two end up journeying into Iraq together, and as they go through a variety of ludicrous adventures which they survive in rather miraculous fashion despite their stupidity we learn more – mostly through flashbacks – about this secret US army unit of supernatural warriors. That is, warriors capable of killing a goat just by staring at it.
In case you might not have realized it, The Men Who Stare at Goats is a comedy that takes itself seriously. Nothing in what it depicts is done with the direct intention to make you laugh, but it’s all a one big parody at the silliness of the army: the way it takes itself way too seriously, the way it wastes our tax money, and the way it protects its stupidity in a veil of secrecy. In this age of Wikileaks you could argue that The Men Who Stare at Goats is the most Assange like film out there…
The parody works well, but it still suffers along the way. Things are too disjointed, for a start, plot wise; you get things happening here and there with too many flashback in between to realize just what took place and why. Then there are the actors, who obviously had great fun making this film but make slightly too much fools of themselves to pass as serious army caricatures: I’m talking primarily about Clooney (who does the same silly performance he did in Burn After Reading) and Kevin Spacey here. Jeff Bridges does a better job portraying the Jedi superheroes unit commander, and McGregor does an excellent job at passing for a useless American despite being Scottish. My favorite, though, was Stephen Lang doing the opposite of what he did in Avatar.
Best scene:
While there are enough silly superhero scenes in the film worthy of acknowledgment, the best scene award goes to the Blu-ray supplemental telling us the film is based on the story of a real superhero unit established by the US army. We see genuine people from that unit telling us of their history of staring goats to death and doing so with a serious face!
Well, superheroes, if you’re that good, why didn’t you do Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein? And why is it impossible to find a single peer reviewed paper on the merits of looking goats in the eye?
It’s a good job The Men Who Stare at Goats is there to tell us stupidity like this really exists, although I’m afraid some viewers might take it at face value.
Technical assessment: The picture on this Blu-ray is nice and detailed, although too reddish/yellowish, probably to go along the Iraqi desert atmosphere. The sound is nothing special, too polite and inoffensive for its own good.
Overall: Entertaining but not as effective as it could have been. 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Dorian Gray

Lowdown: The tale of a man free to sin because his picture pays the consequences.
Review:
I suspect you could argue Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of my favorite classic literature books given the fact I read it out of my own free will twice and enjoyed the experience. The Dorian Gray myth has started early with me, the result of childhood stories my father used to tell me about this book where a guy stays young as his picture grows old. Described this way, the story of Dorian Gray sounds quite innocent; reading it meant it left a significantly less innocent impression in my head. The film interpretation discussed here, from 2009 - where the name was truncated to just Dorian Gray - is anything but innocent; it doesn’t leave much room for the imagination to conjure any sense of innocence.
As we start, we meet a young Dorian Grey (Ben Barnes) living in Victorian England. The heir of an old dude no one liked, our country boy arrives at London a very innocent youth to claim his heritage. That youth and innocence is quickly spoiled by his adopting mentor of a lord (played by Colin Firth), who keeps on telling our Dorian to lose himself to temptation. Other friends, like a painter who draws a wonderful picture of Dorian’s image, warn our hero but to no avail: quickly enough Dorian Gray turns into an evil dude heavily into hedonism with total disregard for anyone but himself. Gray does not hesitate to use any woman in town sexually, even when his actions live them dead – either physically or mentally. That's because he has a secret: his portrait, which he keeps secret in his attic, takes all the punishment for his actions. He gets to keep his youth while his drawing gets uglier and uglier. The question is, how low can he go?
I will admit to not being able to tell how loyal this Dorian Gray is to Wilde’s original; the eight years that passed between me last reading the book and me watching the film mean I only have the book’s rough outline in my head. What I can say is that the film seems to tell the familiar story, period. The problem is that the film does not leave much room for the imagination. I’m perfectly fine with its more visceral than we’re used to depictions of Gray’s sexual adventures, even the homosexual ones; in fact I praise films that dare go where Hollywood’s accountants and marketing department don’t (Dorian Gray seems a British production, sponsored by British Lottery none the less). Yet being too visceral means that you’re also leaving not as much room for the imagination and not much room for doubt, which makes the film lesser for the thinking viewer and instead pushes it more towards the more conventional genre of Victorian horror. While the directors have every right to go down that path, I cannot say I’m much of a fan. So yes, I enjoyed watching the film, but I also couldn't avoid feeling disappointed.
Worst scenes: Every time we encounter the picture we are exposed to attacks of the cheap horror kind. Why does the picture need to have monster snorting like sound effects associated with its screen appearance?
Technical assessment: The picture is quite good, even if the colors seem to be purposefully distorted towards that good old dark Victorian look. Sound is finely depicted, even though it cannot be said to be anything particularly special for a Blu-ray.
Overall: 3 out of 5 stars, but it could have [easily] been much better.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Toy Story 3

Lowdown: Looking for someone to play with them, our toys end up at a childcare that's more like a POW.
Review:
It’s been more than ten years since the last Toy Story instalment, but although the idea of a second sequel after so many years may raise stale connotations, Toy Story 3 feels as fresh as it did back in 1995. While it is a sequel to a sequel it still broke new grounds for us: let the history books show that Toy Story 3 was the first all-family movie night at home for us – the first time ever we sat down and watched us a film we’ve never seen before together with our three year old from start to finish. May we do it thousands of times more!
The point is that Toy Story 3 is a film suitable enough to that purpose, which is not as trivial an affair as it sounds: keeping a three year old’s attention span for more than an hour and a half while not scaring him too much and not introducing him to things we do not want him introduced to yet (e.g., violence) demands pickiness in choosing your material. Add the need to entertain us adults in the process – we haven’t sat down to watch Toy Story 3 for the sake of our son, you know – and you realize the might of the challenge.
I do have to say I am envious of my son. He’s getting his exposure to the fascinating world of film through Blu-rays projected on a big TV with surround sound far eclipsing CD sound quality; when I was his age all I had was a black & white TV with one channel broadcasting a few hours a day (mostly past my bed time). Maybe, eventually, he’ll realize how lucky he is.
Alright, let’s talk a bit about the movie. Time did not fair well on Andy’s toys: as he grew up a lot of the toys were given away, and those that remained are not played with anymore. Still, the basic gang - Woody, Buzz, pig and dinosaur - are still there. As we join the foray their owner is about to leave for college tomorrow and has to quickly decide what to do with his toys; as per the series’ standard affairs, misunderstanding occurs and our toys find themselves donated to a childcare facility.
At first it seems like they reached a toys’ heaven, a place where they’re always loved by an endless supply of children. They quickly realize there’s more to their new home than meets the eye: the facility is managed by an evil toy (whom I picked on early on because of its similarity with the baddie from Toy Story 2) running a Stalag 17 POW like camp with those in power abusing the weaker and the newer toys (in a manner not unlike Blindness’). Can our toys perform The Great Escape and return to their rightful owner?
As already hinted, Toy Story 3 borrows a lot of themes from other films, notably World War 2 ones. Perhaps this make the film sound unoriginal, but that is not the case: for a start, it is obvious these elements are borrowed with a wink towards the adult viewer, the way most child+adult friendly animation films have been acting for years now. Second, Toy Story 3 uses these themes to support its own main themes – the ones we know about from its predecessors, mainly of the need for a toy to be loved and the value of friendship.
There are some moments that stretch things out as far as the schmaltz factor is concerned, but the package feels very complete overall. It is clear some people have had fun making this film, and as per usual Pixar standards Toy Story is high octane fun without a glitch.
Best scene:
There is a scene towards the end of the movie when all of our favorite toys are facing certain and imminent death at a furnace and there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. The certainty of the matter, coupled with its hopelessness, reminded me of the famous shower scene from Schindler’s List, thus contributing to my impression Toy Story 3 borrows a lot from famous World War 2 themes.
The beauty of this scene is in what the toys choose to do at their hour of death: they hold hands in solidarity, celebrating them being together. Like many of the other Toy Story themes this is also something we can relate to: our [eventual] deaths are certain, and the dearest things to us all are those we love the most; we should therefore make the most of this connection we have with them during our limited time on this earth.
Not the most child friendly scene ever, but a powerful and worthy one still.
Technical assessment:
As has always been the case with Pixar films, the picture on this Blu-ray is state of the art quality (unlike the cinema presentation, though, this Blu-ray is 2D only). As I’m used to animation flicks having excellent picture quality my senses focused more on the sound department, where this Blu-ray offers a 7.1 soundtrack. Not that I can tell the difference (I don’t have that many speakers), but those that do should give Toy Story 3 a chance because while it’s not the most aggressive of soundtracks out there it does do a great job at the envelopment department – probably one of the best "you're right there in the middle of it" jobs I have ever had the pleasure of being involved at.
Overall: Mildly tacky, Toy Story 3 is still a worthy 4 out of 5 stars contender.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Lady Chatterley

Lowdown: A French take on the story of the English lady falling in love with the servant.
Review:
Over the years I have seen me several adaptations of the Lady Chatterley story, but this 2006 release is by far the weirdest: set in England with English clothing, English characters and all, this Lady Chatterley is a French production speaking French and featuring French actors. I’m so used to English’s dominancy that hearing an English story told in French feels bizarre.
It may be told in French, but the story is roughly the same as before. Taking place probably around the early 1920’s, Lady Chatterley (Marina Hands) is married to a wealthy husband and lives with him and a bunch of servants at a castle with huge grounds. The sir of the house (Hippolyte Girardot) has been injured in WW1, rendering him sexually dysfunctional. Normal cravings for sex and for a child open the door for the lady to fall in love with her husband’s gamekeeper (Jean-Louis Coullo'ch), starting off a tale of forbidden love.
The trick with this version of Lady Chatterley is not in the story but rather in the way the story is told. Two and a half seconds into the film you figure out this film is going to be slow on its going abouts. Shots tend to linger, and although long cuts are not the order of the day the slowness of English country life is more than emphasized: a walk in the woods, for example, features lots of shots of the character walking in the woods mixed with intermittent shots of woods - just the woods. Generally speaking I don’t have a problem with slowly developed films, but in my opinion this one gets to you, especially given the film’s longer than two hours’ duration.
Indeed, eccentricities know no bounds with this one, narration being the next example: As we start off we get the occasional captioned narration, but as the film progresses we receive voice over narration. Only later does it become apparent who the narrator is, and it never becomes apparent how they got to know everything to the point they're able to narrate. Oh, and in between major scenes you get a fadeout followed by a few seconds of a blackout. As I said, eccentric.
Best scene:
The husband and wife go on a stroll by the woods, the husband riding a motorized chair. As they walk they discuss socialism, and the husband discounts it saying that low class people are always in need of a master; then he gets stuck as his chair’s engine won’t take him up a hill, but he still refuses offers to have his chair pushed.
I find this scene interesting because of what it tells us of the husband: he trusts machinery that doesn’t deliver more than he trusts people; he’s not only dead in some of his body, but he’s deal mentally, too.
Then again, we might mock the husband’s anti humanist approach, but aren’t the religions most of us worship designed to keep the masters in power in the first place? We should look at ourselves before we mock the husband’s figure.
Notable scene:
The lady and her lover decorate each other’s pubic hair with flowers. Indeed, there is a lot of nudity in the film, as has always been in Lady Chatterley’s various adaptations. If memory serves me right this French version – perhaps by virtue of it being French – sports more than its serious predecessors.
It is therefore important to note the way nudity is portrayed. We witness characters in the nude and we see them having sex, but it does not feel like pornography – at least not the pornography one is used to seeing under that label. I would say that what we see in Lady Chatterley are normal people dealing with their bodies the way normal people do, procreation included. It’s good to see film treat such subject matters adequately.
Overall: While there are some interesting aspects to this Lady Chatterley interpretation, I could not avoid being too bored for comfort by its slowness. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Avatar Extended Collector's Edition

Lowdown: A further developed version of Avatar.
Review:
Back in the days of its cinematic release, Avatar was known primarily as a 3D delight with not much in the way of a plot. However, I was very curious to see how Avatar would translate to the home cinema environment for one main reason: James Cameron, Avatar's director, is one of my favorite movie makers of all time (probably only second to Clint Eastwood). Although Cameron has had better and worse films in his career, all of his films have been exceptional home theater experiences. Not only are his films technical masterpieces, he is one of the few directors that shoots with home theater in mind: he knows his films are going to continue living in home theaters long after their cinematic releases are long forgotten. And it's not just the shooting itself: Cameron takes great care when mastering his films for home cinema release, tweaking them so that they'd work better at home (rather than blindly taking the version mastered to work well at the cinema and printing it on a disk). I know that very well, because I have owned special editions of his Abyss, The Terminator, Terminator 2, Aliens, True Lies and Titanic. Of these titles, Terminator 2 is the most notable for its extended edition adding further insight to the story and further developing it while accompanied by supplemental material that made me appreciate that colossal film much more.
When I bought the Avatar Extended Collector's Edition on Blu-ray, a very rare event for me nowadays of buying a film, I was looking to recreate my Terminator 2 experience. And recreate it I did.
Although this version is still 2D (as was the previous DVD/Blu-ray release of Avatar), it is still mighty impressive. Mastered in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio to fit the home theater screen perfectly (as opposed to the 2.35:1 scope cinematic ratio release), this Blu-ray sports the best picture I have ever seen outside the cinema, period - and probably better than the ones I have ever seen at the cinemas, too. It is simply perfect: incredibly detailed with accurate colors and so oozing in quality it just immersed me entirely despite being "just" 2D. The sound on this Blu-ray is very good, too, although not "the best I've ever heard" quality: dialog in particular seems to suffer from noise and inconsistencies. On the positive side, dialog is not limited to the center channel: you hear it coming from where the characters are, which adds to the immersion factor.
While it is of no coincidence I chose to focus on technicalities before discussing the plot it has to be said that the additional scenes (which now bring the film's length to 178 minutes compared to the cinema's 162) contribute a lot. Whereas we all came out of the cinema pointing at a weak plot and flying mountains, a lot of these issues have been addressed - to one extent or another - in this extended edition, leaving me a much more satisfied viewer. Also worth mentioning is the back on earth background provided for Sam Worthington's character: we now see him coming to the miners' moon from a very Blade Runner like world and we can understand why he came the way he came and what drove him to change.
The film is not the only thing to watch on this Blu-ray. Supplemental material on the making of this technological wonder is very well made (reminding me of the high quality supplementals in the Lord of the Rings' special editions; that's no coincidence since both films were the result of the concentrated efforts of many incredible talents, both cinematic and technical ones). The deleted scenes offer even further plot extensions that develop the more minor characters to a very satisfying degree.
Coming out of this Blu-ray is quite a lot of respect to the Avatar creation. James Cameron has done it again, creating the ultimate home theater experience.
Overall: Avatar proves that technical prowess can make a movie great by creating a home cinema event equaling the Terminator 2 experience of almost twenty years ago (and any Laserdisc owner would know what I am talking about). The extended edition proves my previous rating of Avatar was indeed correct: Avatar is a very worthy 5 out of 5 stars film.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan

Lowdown: An orphan teenager living in a swords & sorcery universe reluctantly embarks on a ranger’s career.
Review:
If you read my reviews long enough you would know I have something against cheap fantasy books. Not that I don’t like them; it’s rather the opposite, I feel as if I spent too much of my precious youth reading such books instead of reading worthier stuff. What reason, then, did I have to turn into The Ruins of Gorlan, the first of many (10!) young adult titles in a series called The Ranger’s Apprentice? Well, I can invoke several good reasons:
  1. I had severe tooth pain and was looking for relief through easy reading.
  2. Author John Flanagan is Australian, and everyone knows that Aussies do it better than the rest. It’s in our blood.
  3. Ranger’s Apprentice was much talked about at the recent AussieCon 4 science fiction convention. Having heard so much about it, mostly from the mouth of the book’s editor, my curiosity was aroused.
For a swords & sorcery tale of fantasy The Ruins of Gorlan sure has some peculiarities about it, most notably its use of kilometres as a unit for measuring distance rather than miles. Over the years I’ve grown so used to sword bearing heroes talking distance in defunct empirical units that suddenly facing proper measurements felt strange, enforcing my conviction that Aussies do it better. However, the most peculiar thing about The Ruins of Gorlan is that for a tale of swords & sorcery it doesn’t feature much in the way of swords & sorcery. Sure, evil monsters are there to be slayed, but it takes backstage to the main event: the tale of a boy’s coming of age, and in particular the tale of the effect bullying has on a company of teenage friends.
As it starts, we are quickly introduced to a young orphan boy, Will, who grew to the age of 15 at a special orphanage with four other peers. Will is facing an important date in his life, a date where his future career as an adult will be determined: he wants to be a warrior and he dreads being a farmer, all the while knowing he doesn't have the physics to make a warrior. Eventually, though, he is elected to become an apprentice ranger, an occupation about which he doesn’t know much. He quickly learns at the hand of his new master, Halt, and through lots of hard work.
In the mean time, one of Will’s colleague at the orphanage, a big and strong guy called Horace with whom he used to argue a lot, is off to a warrior’s career – the career Will dreamt about. Yet things go sorely wrong for Horace as he is constantly bullied at the warrior’s school, with the resulting friction affecting everyone.
Thus we are set to a constantly exciting and quite thrilling tale of friendship, adventure, and - most importantly – coming of age. I was proven right: The Ruins of Gorlan is an excellent toothache choice of a book because it is easy to read, but it works even better because it’s so thrilling it takes your mind off the pain. It all brilliantly fits into the young adult framework, because things are not only short and simple but also very relevant to every young adult’s life: the terror before a crucial exam, tensions about what future lies ahead for you as compared to your seemingly more successful friends, and bullying to name just three.
The only rub is in the obvious fact this book does not stand on its own and requires one to read its sequel[s] if one is to come to peace with the characters. While The Ruins of Gorlan does have an ending, this ending is not conclusive enough: the chief baddie is still roaming about and big time war is looming. On its own having a sequel may not be too bad, but there is a catch: looking for the sequel at Amazon I noticed the paper version sells for $8 while the Kindle version sells for $10. That didn’t make sense so I tried it again, switching my country settings from Australia to the USA: this time around the Kindle version’s price was $7. I already talked about the way Australian companies are taking Aussies for a ride by considering them already bent down and ready to be shafted with the blunt end of the stick up their ass here, but this particular example really infuriates me. I really hope the Aussie publisher gets a sincere and mighty blow at piracy’s hand the way the music industry had, but on the other hand I will then lament the demise of an industry that is important to me. In the mean time, I will do the legal thing and purchase the next Ranger’s Apprentice as an American using the services of a VPN provider (as discussed here).
Overall: Excellent easy reading and excellent reading for all youth. 4 out of 5 stars. Shame about the way the Aussie publisher is treating the series' readers, though.

Monday, 22 November 2010

In America

Lowdown: The ordeals encountered by an Irish family moving to New York during the eighties.
Review:
An Irish family crosses the American border, seemingly illegally, and settles in Manhattan. That is the premises of Jim Sheridan’s 2002 film, In America. It’s your average young family with aspirations: the husband is a would be actor looking for an acting career in Broadway, the wife is a mother supporting her children and her husband, and two little girls. We have no idea what got the family all the way to the USA and New York in particular; the only other thing In America is willing to tell us about them is that they had a third child that died as a baby.
With that one big historical blemish on their record, our family is about to face the new ordeal of settling down in a new place. It’s the usual immigrant stuff: finding a place to live, finding a job, dealing with local conditions (e.g., the heat of summer). Everywhere they go our family has it the hard way, most notably with their residence: an old flat in a building full of drug addicts. Thus the story develops: we meet more characters as the family encounters them and we learn more about the family’s tragic past.
I found myself having big problems with In America. The total lack of setup information – why we’re here in New York, what is the motivation of doing this and that – got the better of me. Unable to identify with any of the characters whose ordeals are largely their own fault (as in, they should have known better) I also found myself unmoved by their gruelling experiences: big deal, as if I needed someone to tell me that the life of an immigrant can be hard. The actors, especially the husband, do not do the film much favor either; add the way a mysterious neighbor (Djimon Hounsou) is introduced got me to be openly hostile towards the film, angry at me wasting my precious time on a film that doesn’t know what it wants to do with itself.
Worst scene: The father gets his family an air-conditioner. In order to achieve his goal he has to carry it in traffic and against, up the stairs, and then go find a replacement power plug. The scene is supposed to demonstrate the hardship our family experiences, but give me a break: I had to go through some of those things myself. We all do, when we move, unless we’re millionaires; and you don’t see us making a film about it.
Overall: Bad films are one thing; at least you can entertain yourself by identifying what it is, exactly, that makes them bad. Films that don’t know what they want of themselves are another beast altogether, because they’re just a waste of everybody’s time. In America belongs to the latter group: I don’t know much about its background but it feels to me like a tribute to someone going through what the film’s family went through. Regardless, In America feels more like it should have been a home video, and should thus be treated as such: we know no one would be interested in our home videos so we keep them to ourselves. In America is a home video that wants to impose itself on its viewers, which is why I’m going to be harsh on it and give it 1 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

Lowdown: Three friends in search of Jewish meaning.
Review: Books like The Finkler Question are not books I regularly read. I was, however, a bit fed up with science fiction and I wanted a worthy distraction; as I just happened to hear Finkler had won surprisingly the Man Booker Prize, the surprise being on account of it being a comedy, I thought this might be the distraction I was looking for.
After reading the book I would say "comedy" is the last term I would use to describe it. It's more like a tragedy where the rare funny moment comes out of sadness rather than the laugh out loud association we normally fix with comedy. Being a remotely funny tragedy is a trait of what I commonly refer to as Jewish prose, things like Fiddler on the Roof, the stories of Shai Agnon we were forced to study at my Israeli school, or the recent Coen brothers film A Serious Man. It is no coincidence I found resemblance between Finkler and Jewish prose: although I was totally unaware of it at the time I chose to read this book, The Finkler Question is Jewish prose. It is as modern an incarnation of Jewish prose as it gets.
The story tells us of three contemporary Londoner friends. Julian Treslove, a gentile, is the main character. At his late forties-early fifties, Treslove is still to form an identity for himself; all he knows is that he has a love-hate relationship with his former school Jewish friend Finkler that causes him to refer to all Jews as "Finklers". Both like the company of Libor, an old high society Jewish journalist who used to be their teacher. Libor and Finkler are recent widowers, but Treslove never had a meaningful relationship. One night, after a joint meeting, Treslove is robbed by a woman at a well lit street, which (through a very articulate line of arguments) starts him pondering Judaism and looking for meaning there. There follows the rest of the book, discussing the trio's personal relationship while the questions of Judaism, antisemitism and Israel are discussed through those.
There is a lot to say in favor of The Finkler Question's style. The book uses rich language throughout, sending me to use my Kindle's dictionary almost on a page by page basis. I'm not complaining; I appreciate Jacobson doing his bit to enrich my life. However, there is an air of artificial pompousness to it all: in my opinion, discussions that could have resolved in a few sentences tend to stretch over pages and pages. During this fairly lengthy read I have had repeated cycles of wishing to see what transpires quickly followed by lengthy "I wish he could get a move on" or "this is going nowhere" downturns.
Yet at its core this is a book about the Jewish question, and that question is analyzed quite ingeniously thorough the analogies the book offers between Judaism and the characters at hand. Do not expect to get your conclusive answers to everything Jewish or Israel related here, although I would say that in comparison to the Jewish prose we were forced to learn at school The Finkler Question is ten times better: it is both modern and relevant, in a way that should have better access to the minds of those that read it.
I have already discussed my views on some of the questions raised by Finkler here, mostly to do with my attitudes towards Israel and Zionism. My main remaining feedback concerning The Finkler Question is related to the human centric approach I have proposed in my discussion on Israel, and that is my conclusive answer to the questions raised in Finkler but never answered. My answer is simple: Although I was born to a Jewish family I do not consider myself a Jew nor do I consider Judaism a necessary part of my life. In fact, I am of the opinion my life is better without Judaism. I have a simple view of life: I do not need religion or tradition to tell me where I belong or what my identity is; I can form those on my own using things that are not arbitrary but are rather very well grounded. Science, common sense and human oriented world views give me all the identity and foundation I need to lead a healthy life; if more people were to follow this example they would see that we can all live in harmony together without having this unexplainable need to put artificial labels on each person's forehead. Thus The Finkler Question's failure to include humanism in its scope is by far its greatest failure.
Overall: I found The Finkler Question interesting enough to merit a read but I would certainly not award it as anything special. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Tears of the Sun

Lowdown: A tough American platoon sent to rescue a Caucasian woman in Africa ends up crusading for the entire nation.
Review:
What is so wrong with Tears of the Sun, a 2003 action film starring Bruce Willis, that I am yet to see it? Indeed, a mystery given the fact I got to watch most of Willis’ action flicks, some of which are far from impressive. Having watched Tears of the Sun last night I finally have the answer to the riddle.
Tears of the Sun is set in an African nation recently going through a revolution. The rebels are performing ethnic cleansing, and in the mayhem that ensues Bruce Willis' crack American commando unit is returning to the safety of its aircraft carrier after rescuing American embassy staff. Theirs is a short rest, though: they are immediately recalled to rescue a female doctor working at a monastery (Monica Bellucci). She is only American through marriage, but she still won’t go when Willis comes to pick her up – not without all her monastery mates. Willis is reluctant at first, but events take the better of him as – against all odds – the company finds itself protecting a large group of fugitives from the mighty rebel army in a battle that may end up as crucial to the entire nation. In effect, Bruce Willis is playing a Rambo role here, only that he has a company to support him; and in another effect, Bellucci is playing the usual role of the typical action film dumb but good looking female bimbo. Oddly, Bellucci’s boobs do not have an active role in the film; I will leave it for you to determine whether that is a positive or a negative.
As far as action films go, Tears of the Sun is quite entertaining and thrilling, to an extent I quite enjoyed it. It is, however, let down by some severe unrealism. Granted, nothing we haven’t seen before: endless clips, goodies able to walk through a shower of bullets unharmed while the baddies never manage to dodge a single bullet, goodies always able to get up after being hit while the baddies never require more than one bullet to forever go silent, fighter jets that go on bombing runs with their signal lights on, and the biggest hit – extremely well lit night time jungles (albeit lit with this weird blue light). As I said, we’ve seen these issues before; they do, however, stand out in Tears of the Sun more than in other films because Tears of the Sun pretends to be realistic in plenty of other ways, including the army manners of Willis & Co (speech, dress, equipment).
Realism or the lack of it is the least of Tears of the Sun’s problems. You catch a whiff of the film’s spirit at the beginning, when the film tells you a revolution took place at this African nation made of Muslims and Christians. Then you get to meet the good African guys, and they are all very obviously good Christians: they live at a monastery, they nurture the poor and provide medical help to those in need (and there are lots of people in need). Then the baddies arrive: Tears of the Sun doesn’t explicitly label them, but the word Muslim does hang up in the air. Muslims or not, these dudes lack compassion: they kill everything Christian, have no respect for god, and even behead the monastery boss on his very altar. The point I’m trying to make is that Christians are portrayed as victims here by virtue of them being Christians, while the baddies are portrayed as baddies by virtue of them hating/killing Christians.
Then we move on to similar quality characterization of everything American: Americans are always good, especially if Bellucci is there to prove them right; they will save everyone; they’re the only ones that can do it. Combine the Christian motif with the good American motif, spice it up with stuff like “the blacks of Africa are the brothers and sisters of the blacks in America”, and you can see where Tears of the Sun is coming from. While ethnic cleansing of Christians did take place, and while the USA has been known to do a good thing from time to time, the unlikely combination of it all can only mean one thing: cheap war mongering propaganda.
Tears of the Sun is obviously a kneejerk reaction to the events of September 11, but of all the ways a knee can jerk itself following such a traumatic event this film chose the scummiest one. It reads as nothing more than a call to arms for Americans to go and rid the world of the evil out there by using force, and it does so by playing up the Christian victimhood card.
Worst scene: Willis & Co learn that amongst their caravan of fugitives hides the son of the country’s assassinated leader, a guy who was just on his way into turning his country to a democracy. There you go: by drawing the "democracy" card among all the other aces it pulls out of its hat, Tears of the Sun delves even further into being a propaganda film to justify wars through.
Overall:
You would have thought that we have grown too cynical and we know too much about this world than to have such cheap propaganda material as Tears of the Sun thrown at us, but obviously someone thought otherwise. Ethnic cleansing is bad enough without serious stereotyping of the George W Bush style good vs. evil, you’re either with us or against us type; these are out of place as of kindergarten level. It is logic such as this that has our soldiers drowning in the mud of Iraq and Afghanistan. Where is the real Bruce Willis, Mr Bush? You’ve retired in peace but the rest of us are still paying the price of your stupidity.
Tears of the Sun is therefore a sad, sad affair at 2 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 8 November 2010

The Fifth Element

Lowdown: 23rd century humanity can only be saved through a weird but good looking girl.
Review:
Let the record show that I never really liked The Fifth Element no matter how much praise French director Luc Besson gained by it. I saw it at Tel Aviv’s Lev cinema upon its 1997 theatrical release and I was very disappointed by that cinema’s poor presentation but also by the film’s lack of substance. Since then I’ve seen it here and there, never able to have it ignite my flame.
Technically speaking, various DVD incarnations of The Fifth Element have been promoted by Widescreen Review (currently celebrating its 150th issue) for their reference material qualities, especially in the picture department. That notion seemed to have passed over to at least one version of the film’s Blu-rays, which is why I did not mind giving The Fifth Element another go.
The Fifth Element takes place in a Blade Runner like world with aliens added on top. Some force of evil is unleashed on earth, as it does every 5000 years, and the only thing that could stop it is this mythical being – the fifth element – performing a certain ritual inside an Egyptian pyramid. Why? Don’t ask. Anyway, that fifth element is intercepted by baddies controlled by an evil dude called Zorg (Garry Oldman); you know Zorg is evil because of his American southern accent. Revived by human scientists, the fifth element takes the shape of an orange haired chick (Milla Jovovich). Pursued by evil forces, our orange girl’s only hope is with the talents of Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), an ex commando turned New York cab driver overflowing with cynicism. On their way to salvation the couple have lots of adventures, both on earth and way over yonder.
Let’s face it: The Fifth Element is entertaining to watch and nice on the eyes, but depth wise it is as shallow as Sarah Palin. Sure, there are hints here and there regarding the devastation humans are causing the world through their indifference, but these are very minor; all in all, The Fifth Element is a space adventure, no more and no less. A pretty silly space adventure with some action and some nice moments, but nothing to merit the mythological status some have pinned it with.
Best scene: The New York flying taxi scenes are the film’s most entertaining ones, even if the concept was heavily borrowed from Blade Runner.
Technical assessment: There can be no arguing about the presentation on this Blu-ray. It is hard to recall a film with such color fidelity. The picture is pretty detailed, too, although it does show some signs of age we are exempted from with newer releases (this could also depend on the version of the Blu-ray at hand). The sound is good, too, although not on par with the latest blockbuster when it comes to shaking the roof off.
Overall: Silly fun does not make a film great. 3 out of 5 stars, and that includes extended generosity towards the exemplary reference quality picture.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Religulous

Lowdown: A comedian’s look at the ridiculousness of religion.
Review:
As an true blue atheist I have had mixed feelings about watching Religulous, comedian Bill Maher’s documentary on religion. On one hand, Maher is a fellow atheist and I should have expected to agree with most of what he’s going to say in the film; on the other there is the question of whether comedy is the right channel to navigate the idea of religion through. Maher’s own character didn’t help when he expressed some antagonism towards vaccinations, lining himself up with loonies from the creationists’ side. Release dates did not do Religulous much good, either: although it has been a 2008 release in the USA it took a long while for it to reach Aussie screens and then a while longer to materialize as a DVD (cue in the movie studios rolling their eyes to the sky as they unashamedly complain about piracy). Now that I finally sat to watch Religulous all those deliberations are behind me, with the main remaining question being whether Religulous is a worthy documentary.
Religulous uses Maher as the commentator/narrator who raises questions regarding the validity of religion in the 21st century universe and then takes him on a journey to places and people where these questions are discussed. Most of those places/people Maher goes to are religious (as opposed to atheist/agnostic), so most of the time Maher is in a very confronting position where you wonder how close he is to being on the receiving end of some violence as he goes about pointing at the thorns up religion’s ass to people that prefer to either ignore them or refer to them as roses. Amongst others, Maher goes inside a truckers’ church, Ken Ham creationist’s museum, various evangelical churches/shows, the Vatican, Israel, and Amsterdam – where he discusses Islam and its violent nature in particular.
As I expected, I have no problems whatsoever with the issues Maher raises to all the people he meets. Evidence is firmly on his side, and he does ask very valid questions (unlike the answers one often gets from religious people trying to justify their beliefs, which are usually vague and always beyond verification). The problem is in the style: it is obvious that those Maher interviews are not fully aware of what his intention really is, and therefore they are not well prepared for the occasion. It is also obvious some crafty editing took place to make Maher look cool while his interviewees often look dumb. Granted, some of them are ignorant, as in the case of the truck driver invoking the Shroud of Turin as evidence for Jesus’ claim to messiah status (adding it contains female DNA to the list of ridicule). The question is, is that the level of debate we expect to see from a quality documentary with a claim to make it clear to us that religion is not only ridiculous but also dangerous? Claims of this severity require us to take action if we agree with them, but can we really be expected to take action because we watched a a manipulative comedy?
I therefore prefer the more serious approach to converting those that follow religion into rational thinking, as expressed by the likes of Richard Dawkins in his superb The God Delusion. Dawkins digests his subject matter to the full, invoking arguments for both sides until the religious side is exposed for its lack of substance; Maher never gives religion a chance to adequately speak for itself.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I have enjoyed Religulous: it is a highly entertaining comedy, funny throughout and often generating big time laughs. It is, however, not much more than a stand up comedy show that takes place at a variety of places and involves a supporting cast. I laughed a lot, but I suspect the religious amonst us would mostly consider the film as mockery to their deeply held beliefs; I do not see them seeing the light through Religulous. Then again, I could be wrong: while I seek rationalism, maybe others will realize how big the mistake called religion is through ridicule? Whatever the case is, I have no problem with Maher openly mocking religion; no idea should be exempt from criticism, and by openly butchering the supposedly sacred religious cow Maher does great service to society as a whole.
Best scene: I have found the scene in which Maher’s mother tells him the reason why his family stopped going to church to be the most touching one in the film and also the most effective, probably because there was no comedy involved and probably because Maher never attempts to ridicule the mother he obviously respects. In case you’re curious, the reason why the Mahers stopped going to church many decades ago was to do with their use of contraceptives and the Catholic Church’s attitude on the matter. The fact Catholicism is still barking up the contraceptive tree only shows how Religulous religion still is.
Technical assessment: This is no DVD to look at for technical reasons. The film was obviously shot in low budget without much in the way of adequate lighting, and the DVD shows. Same for the sound, which is only mildly rescued by the occasional song.
Overall: As an investigative examination of religion, the way a proper skeptic should consider any theory, Religulous fails. But as stand up comedy this is top notch: both funny and controversial at 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

The A-Team

Lowdown: The longer version of the story on how The A-Team came to be and how they achieved renegade status.
Review:
Back at the time and place I grew up in, The A-Team was staple TV food. Friday afternoon in eighties’ Israel were devoted to The A-Team cause. Personally, I still remember the double episode pilot featuring a different Face to the one that was later borrowed from Battlestar Galactica’s Starbuck role. I also have fond memories of the other characters, mostly BA Burecas, the character that transformed Mr T from being the bad guy in Rocky 3 to a generic bad boy. Yet with all due respect, no one had ever assumed The A-Team was anything more than mediocre TV; the main reason why it achieved the popularity it had at its peak was to do with the lack of competition. In today’s contents filled world of hundreds of channels as well as the Internets I doubt a series like The A-Team would have survived five seasons. Yet the studios decided to revive the formula for a cinematic escapade and even brought some new familiar faces to fill in the familiar characters’ shoes: Liam Neeson plays Hannibal Smith while Face and Murdoch of yonder have been relegated to cameos.
For the story, the film version decided to focus on the background. Every TV episode started by telling us The A-Team is a group of professional soldiers hunted by the law for a crime they didn’t commit, but never bothered telling us how these soldiers got together and why they are chased by the authorities. Well, with the film you get your chance to fill this gap up, so just switch your brains off for a couple of hours and relax. You'll be taken for an action packed gathering of characters in Mexico, from which you will travel to the battlefields of Iraq and eventually go on a Trans Atlantic adventure featuring our heroes chasing after both a bunch of dollar bill forgers and their reputation. Exaggerated action scenes are all around and our heroes always survive in one piece, so there really is no reason to worry.
It is this lack of worrying that is the bane of The A-Team. It’s nice silly action and all, but it’s hard to get involved and to feel like you care for the characters whose personal back stories are pretty meaningless. As meaningless as the dilemma the new B.A. Baracus faces with his decision to become a pacifist. I strongly suspect that for those who did not grow on The A-Team the story is even worse.
Best scene: The A-Team flies a tank. They even land it safely, at least by the movie’s reckoning (obviously, the fact they crash on water instead of land means we have no reason to expect them in anything other than top shape).
Technical assessment:
This Blu-ray comes equipped with an extended edition, which is the one we watched. I suspect (but I’m not sure) the extensions come in the shape of the leading characters performing silly improvisations.
As for the Blu-ray’s performance, this one is a top notch performer. The picture, although of high contrast, is excellent. The sound is exactly what you would expect from an American action film with too much money on its hands.
Overall: I suspect we won’t have five seasons of this one to go through. It’s fun but not much more than that so I’ll be harsh and give it only 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The Incredible Hulk

Lowdown: The American army is still after its green weapon.
Review:
To someone relatively unattached with the starring characters, the fact a second Hulk film was released during 2008 - only five years after Ang Lee's notorious version starring Eric Bana - raises some questions concerning redundancy. Not that I mind this potentially redundant new version: I actually liked Lee's film, and as I found out during The Incredible Hulk's open credits' montage this new version takes place after the previous one. In effect, we have ourselves a sequel, not a replacement.
At this point I might have told you what the Hulk is all about - a comic based character of a scientist involved in an experiment gone wrong, a scientist who now becomes a gigantic green man with superpowers whenever he gets angry. But should I really tell this tale? The Incredible Hulk takes it for granted that you know who Bruce Banner is.
This time around, Bruce Banner is played by Edward Norton. As we start, Banner works as a lowly factory guy in Brazil, a country where he seeks refuge from himself - a place where he can find enough solace to avoid turning into his Mr Hyde of a hulk. He can't hide forever, though: an American army general (William Hurt) seeks him out, potentially to avenge the injuries Banner had inflicted on his daughter (Liv Tyler) upon becoming The Hulk. Perhaps there is more to this chase, given Hurt's character recruiting the best commando soldier he can put his hands on (Tim Roth) to deliver him what he considers his prized possession. With this setting established, The Incredible Hulk turns into exactly what one would expect a fantastic comics based story to turn into: an adventure filled with action scenes that, eventually, pits our supernatural hero against an adversary of even further fetched supernatural qualities.
There is nothing wrong with a loyal cinematic exploration of a comic book; this lack of loyalty to the spirit of comics was at the core of the problem with Ang Lee's version. It is, however, a bit of a shame to see how this potentially terrific story was made to look like any other cheap action flick coming out of Hollywood's clutches: predictable and featuring all of the action hero cliches one would expect (e.g., the way the leading female role stands for nothing but being her man's prop). One cannot avoid feeling a better director could have turned the material at hand into a masterpiece.
Criticism and too cheap digital effects aside, I enjoyed watching The Incredible Hulk. It's simple yet good entertainment that does stand out to one extent or another above its more mundane counterparts. If asked why, I would point at the cast: the talent at hand is more than what one normally gets for such a film. In my opinion, and with 25th Hour as my witness, Norton is one of the best talents to come out of Hollywood; it's a pity these talents have not been better exploited in recent times.
Silliest scene: The Hulk fights off the American army at the grounds of a university on a lovely clear sunny day. Until, that is, he dispenses with the last straw the army throws at him, a helicopter gunship; the minute that gunship is destroyed, day turns into night and heavy rain ensues. What the?
Overall: The most loyal to the spirit of your run of the mill comic book film I can recall. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

A Week at the Airport by Alain de Botton

Lowdown: Musings invoked during a week at Heathrow.
Review:
I would have a hard time answering you what my dream job is, but I can easily tell you which of the jobs I actually had was my favorite. Working at an airline has its perks, like the occasional free flight or the ability to quickly catch a plane for an exotic weekend , but there is more to it. There is something truly special when giant 747s park closer to your office window than your car is; something magical about working at a place where you know each takeoff, spaced only minutes from its predecessor, requires the effort of hundreds and some $100,000; something enchanting when you pass by a passenger jet taken apart for maintenance on your way to lunch; and something emotional when, on a daily basis, you witness the automatic doors taking in people who just departed from loved ones and other doors opening up so that families can reunite.
I miss working for an airline. In many ways I am annoyed with myself for ever leaving, a quality I seem to share with others who have had an airline job in their past.
My love affair with the world of civil aviation meant I could not step aside upon learning that pop philosopher Alain de Botton, famous for his multiple R-Ward wins (here and here), has released a book about his experience being locked at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 for a week. Upon hearing of this book I ordered its Kindle version, and given its short length (estimated at about 100 normal paperback pages according to my private reckoning) I started reading it at once. There is a mighty advantage to reading short books: you can get into all sorts of many different worlds at the same time a lengthier book would take you to just one. A Week at the Airport does even better by incorporating the brilliant photos of Richard Baker (de Botton’s regular partner in crime, it seems) into the plot: even on the Kindle’s screen, limited to 16 shades of gray, these photos look great.
The story behind this short book seems almost trivial. Commissioned to do so by British Airways, de Botton dutifully spent five days at Heathrow’s new Terminal 5 without ever stepping out to the big wide world, and wrote about his experience. To his credit, de Botton visits everything the airport has to offer: departures/arrivals, the parking lot, maintenance facilities, management, security, shops, an airport hotel (where he also slept), and even the first class lounge. More credit goes to him never kissing British Airways ass: wherever he goes, de Botton tells us what is on his philosopher’s mind in a manner very similar to his previous book – The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. If anything, you can regard a Week at the Airport as a direct sequel to its predecessor with a focus on having a head up the clouds.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that; I like de Botton’s writing in general and I find myself repeatedly illuminated by his insight. In those short hundred or so pages de Botton manages to capture not only a lot of what takes place at the airport but also a lot of what takes place in society as a whole, contemporary one in particular. By looking at the extremes of the airport environment de Botton takes us apart to find what makes us tick.
Overall: Exciting, interesting, often illuminating – and short. Highly recommended at 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Wall Street

Lowdown: A personal story of moral decay caused as the result of extreme capitalism.
Review:
Upon the release of its sequel, Money Never Sleeps, Channel 10 graced us by airing the original 1987 piece by Oliver Stone. Surprisingly for a film with such reputation as Wall Street I never sat through its entirety. Watching a film in bits over a lengthy period of time is never a recipe for cinematic fulfillment, so this Friday night we sat down to rectify the situation.
The story, in case you’re not familiar with it, has us following an aspiring Charlie Sheen. The son of an airline mechanic and union member (real life father Martin Sheen), our Charlie works as an investment manager and spends his day cold calling potential customers for their business out of his nightmare of an office where he is surrounded by people like him, some young, some old, and some crash landing. He is looking at the stars, though, and his favorite supernova is Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), a cutthroat investor that ploughs through people and businesses like a bulldozer powered by pure greed. With his father's airline on the line, soon enough our young apprentice needs to make the personal call between humanism/consciousness and making money/getting the girls/having the supposedly good life; Gekko’s extreme capitalism cannot tolerate a compromises there.
While the plot may sound simple, the devil is in the style. And the style is unmistakably Oliver Stone's, even if in many respects it is outdated by too eighties music and computer monitors smaller and less flashy than the one on my hand watch. You get the fast pacing and fast editing, especially with characters talking the Wall Street talk at such pace and with such vigour that you can only hope to get the gist of things by the general atmosphere. The combination of this very confronting as well as polarizing presentation is what gave Wall Street its classic reputation, coupled with Douglas’ by now legendary performance.
Best scene: Obviously, the classic scene in which Gekko boasts the power of greed before a meeting of shareholders is the film’s most memorable one. I found it interesting because Gekko invokes arguments from evolution to justify his greed, namely survival of the fittest. The likes of Hitler and other advocates of eugenics have done it before him, neglecting to notice that human civilization’s biggest achievement has been countering the normal order of nature in order to prevent the rule of the fittest. None of us wants to live like an animal, not even the richest; it’s time our society got bold enough to acknowledge that and behave accordingly, embracing humanism instead of capitalism.
Overall: It may be old by I like it; there certainly is a lot to learn from Wall Street still (read: GFC). 3.5 out of 5 stars. Sadly, while speculative jobs will probably never appeal to me, it does not seem like Wall Street’s lessons are getting to the minds of those that count.

Monday, 25 October 2010

My Year Without Sex

Lowdown: An ordinary Aussie family deals with the mother’s recovery from stroke.
Review:
Movie reviews indicated My Year Without Sex (MYWS) is one of those low key Australian films that deliver, and indeed we’ve found this to be the case with this 2009 release.
Set at Melbourne’s western suburbs, MYWS follows a very average Aussie family. Average in all respects: composition (father, mother, boy, girl), dwelling, financial situation, attitude to sports, friends et al. Even aspects like the typical for Australia long distances between family members are covered, with the grandparents relocating to the Gold Coast for retirement. Yet upon this ordinary family lands an extraordinary event when the mother suffers from a stroke. Luckily for her, that happens while she’s visiting a doctor, and thus she’s able to survive an event most people don’t. She is, however, yellow carded: she needs to take things easy, avoid physical effort, and as the name of the film implies – avoid sex. The rest of the film follows the family though the next year of their lives.
MYWS works as a simple touching film, but it also deals with ideas that are at the center of the Aussie experience as well as the center of most human families. First there is the question of what a family is, as we are presented with a family friend who keeps on dumping wives in favor of younger ones while fathering children from previous marriages (and while being financially well off, in contrast to the hero family). The main discussion, though, is on how bad things can happen to those who do good things and how failure can happen even if you mean well and make a genuine effort. Yet, as the film demonstrates, by joining forces even those bad events can be overcome, to one extent or another. The overall message is probably "don’t approach life expecting perfection".
There is some misfiring in the film, too. A lot of the discussion in this short hour and a half film has to do with faith [in the supernatural], as in religion’s role during times of stress. On the positive side, and as further evidence this is an Australian rather than an American film, the conclusion reached by the film is towards the agnostic side of things. That said, any time wasted on the powers of the supernatural is time wasted in my book. Come on, you can’t be objective and accept god as a source of comfort when times are bad given that it’s the same god that put you in dire straits in the first place.
Best scene: The father is late picking the son up from the cinema, and the son is there on his own as what seems to be a child molester starts harassing him. I found the scene funny because it uses the molester’s barracking for the Pies (Collingwood Magpies, an Australian Rules team) to establish that he’s a baddie. Most Melbournians would instantly agree with this approach.
Technical assessment: A poor DVD. I understand if such a film with its limited budget doesn’t sport a mighty soundtrack, but why should the picture lean towards VHS quality as opposed to high definition?
Overall: Charming in its authenticity. 3 out of 5 stars.